We Changed Bedtime to Save Our Sanity, So Why Do I Miss the Old One?


A mother putting her daughter to bed.As recently as one month ago, the most common words our kids uttered between 8 and 9 p.m. were “one more.” One more snack, one more story. One more snuggle, one more glass of water. And the most terrifying of all – one more stuffed animal, usually said about some toy unseen in the past year.

In most areas of parenting, my husband and I have been disciplined and consistent. We expect our kids to eat the dinner I cook, clean their rooms when we ask them to and prepare themselves for school. We limit sweets, have rules on screen time, and, over the years, have established a household that runs fairly smoothly.

But there is one area of parenting where we have consistently failed. Bedtime.

Blame it on years of colic, my husband’s hectic work schedule, or my oldest’s late practices. But bedtime has always been less about discipline and routine and more about survival.

Not that we haven’t tried. When our oldest was a baby, we hired a sleep consultant. We established a strict routine of bath, book, and bed. And while it wasn’t easy, we did succeed. But then came two more kids and a lifestyle that didn’t make strict bedtimes easy. With my husband working late, I often completed bedtime solo. This meant taking toddlers to 9 p.m. gymnastics pickups and then leaving kids waiting for story time well past bedtime while I bathed, read, and put down the youngest.

The routine left everyone upset as my guilt spiraled, the impossibility of meeting everyone’s needs a constant worry that led me to say “yes” when I should have been saying “no.” Yes to one more story, yes to one more snuggle, even yes to one more snack.

It was a routine we needed to change. One we desperately wanted to change. But every time we tried – saying no to more stories, refusing to search for that stuffed animal – a torrent of tears would overtake the tiny bit of free time still left in our day. And so even as the kids grew, even as my husband’s late hours eased and my daughter’s practices grew earlier, we continued to say “yes” to demands in a desperate effort to preserve the peace.

It was sometime last fall when my husband finally cracked. While our oldest went to bed without a problem, bedtime for our younger two had exploded to an over two-hour performance that started with showers and often ended with little heads nestled on our chests, neither wanting us to leave the room until they slept. Bedtime was unsustainable, a massive time drain robbing our children of sleep and their parents of much-needed time to decompress.

And so we tried again to change things. Again came the tears. Again, we gave in, promising to revisit the problem after the holidays.

So came January and a renewed effort to take back bedtime. Only this time, I decided we had to do things differently. To succeed, we needed to motivate the kids. I knew this meant doing more than telling them, “You’ll feel better with more sleep.” So I brought out the big guns. A treasure chest filled with small prizes they could choose from every night they went to sleep without us, plus a chart they filled in daily to win weekly group prizes, like a night out for ice cream.

Overnight, our evening routine went from a constant struggle to a challenge they wanted to conquer. Their motivation gave us the confidence to slowly say “no” to more demands. And it allowed us to get up and leave when we were ready, kissing goodnight little faces wearing awake, dry eyes.

The health benefits were almost immediate. Our kids had more energy due to more sleep, meaning fewer meltdowns and tantrums. My husband and I had time to watch a show in the evenings – a much-needed improvement to our mental health.

For three weeks, bedtime became not a battle but a collective effort to reach the grand prize – a trip to Target, where each child selected a small “grand prize.” Walking through Target holding my youngest’s small hand, I could feel her pride, her eyes sparkling with excitement that she had conquered something hard for her.

But then came bedtime without the prizes and fanfare, without the trip to Target hanging overhead. My youngest struggled. She started crying when I left and became clingy at Pre-K drop-off. And I found myself missing her too. Not the two-hour time-sucking bedtimes but the closeness we’d shared during all those extra snuggles, stories, and songs.

The feeling surprised me. Bedtime was going so much better! We were all more rested and happy! Surely, I wouldn’t want a return to before, to all that lost time and fruitless stuffed animal hunts. And yet still, it hurt every night as I got up and left my youngest, always telling her Mommy would be back soon, then slipping away until her room grew quiet, only returning to check her when I was sure she was asleep.

Because the truth was, bedtime might have been exhausting, but it had been our special time together. Time I craved as much as her. So, as the nights wore on, I sometimes read that extra chapter. Sometimes, I sang that extra song. And the other night, when she asked me to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” for the third time, I hugged her tight, then started singing again as I tucked her in, kissing her forehead as I finished, then shuffling down the hall.

Bedtime had to change. We could not go back. But there was still time for one more song. One more kiss goodnight. And one more quiet moment to enjoy my youngest girl, growing bigger and more independent with every passing night.


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